A review of The Unreal City by Mike Lala

Reviewed by Michael Kleiza

The Unreal City
by Mike Lala
Tupelo Press
July 2023, ISBN: 978-1-946482-93-8, Paperback

In his latest offering, The Unreal City, Mike Lala has composed poems that are sweeping in form and scope. There is so much information in them that it is an injustice to the author to single out parts of the poems and leave out other parts that are as relevant. Yet, as a reviewer I must try to give you (the reader) a sense of what takes you through the city he lives in, New York, … through the art, the streets, the stores and the restaurants. This is evident in the first 5 poems he offers at the beginning of the book. In Nudes, the first poem, he writes in intricate and intimate description of what are paintings or statues. Going further, he puts himself in the place of the character portrayed, adopting their posture and persona: “My pelvis tilted forward. I leaned back on the bed with the dog. / Right hand clutched a vase. / A black cat, a servant at my feet with flowers.”

There is a lot of muscular movement in Lala’s poems. The poet’s interest (almost what seems to be an obsession) in labor and work defined through movement can be read in My Receipt, a poem about him being a spectator in a theater: “… his knees, his body at work, / part/ of a sum / (a company): men together — their bodies / in labor together, / for whom the audience puts their hands together”. In Elizabeth Street where he walks through the neighborhood, his listing of the shops and passersby is so effective that you feel as if you are walking with him: “6th and Spring / at stop (the signal) bottle / neck / ing no less than six gorgeous humans / gleam in sunset (off each other) light / ly I stay south, cross 6th, pass Aquagrill … Dom’s, and old men, Vesuvio, scarf hot slices, span time, wasted, watching SoHo’s women glide by …”.

And yet, through his sweeping work, there is shock that we feel as well — as if we are walking with him through the wastelands created by unfettered capitalism and colonialism, where daily drone strikes are de rigeur in countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, etc. Certainly, there is no compromise in his writing as Lala lists with cold accounting the dated reports and body counts: “@dronestream: Oct 5, 2014: Five people killed and three wounded when missiles struck the valley / @dronestream: Oct 6, 2014 Eight people killed & six wounded. ‘The target could not be independently verified’ / @dronestream: Oct 11, 2014: multiple missiles killed four people in Khyber / @dronestream: Oct 11, 2014: Two people killed in a bad week”. 

“I want a holophrase” The poet lifts Hope Mirrlees’ opening line in Paris: A Poem. With this sentence Mike Lala starts his poem Work. In its simplest definition, a holophrase is a single word expressing a complex of ideas. We are dealing here with the beginning of language, as with a young child who may say a single word to communicate a desire to see her mother, i.e., Mama, a word that may mean she wants to be picked up and hugged, or perhaps indicating that she wants to be fed. Is it possible that the poet wishes he could pack his poem into one all-encompassing word so that the reader can almost feel what he means, like a sort of Gestalt experience? Certainly Work has that effect, in that, the poem is more than its parts, rather it is an experience. With over 150 references to lines from other poems and works, which he intersperses throughout the poem, he makes us feel his apocalyptic vision of what we are beginning to see, of what we, perhaps, have known for a while, but have discarded as an aberration, as our planet changes because of runaway industrialisation and capitalism. Here he sometimes deals in prophecy: “time future bet against, time past brought forth / the SEA / sure / to / undo / THIS city. / Unreal city to which I came for work.” In his last lines he evokes and confesses his guilt and sadness — his country’s raiding of the cradle of civilization for profit: “Concerning MONEY & LABOR / my life as a worker / I sang while my country / waged war / on the banks / of the Euphrates / for borderless commerce & moneyed relations / hung over the life of our single planet”.

The Unreal City is not an easy book of poems. The reader has to be dogged in sticking with it. But there are nuggets here to mine and to rejoice in, and to be thoughtful about.

About the reviewer: Michael Kleiza was born in Montreal, and now lives in Guelph with his partner Susan Kelly. Michael’s poems have been published in various anthologies and magazines. His poem “Remembrance Song” was chosen as a finalist for the William Collins Canadian Poetry Prize presented by Descant magazine.